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Noem, Thune hope on farm bill conference

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South Dakota's two Republicans in Congress are trying to remain optimistic about the process that might yet give the nation a new farm bill.

Both Rep. Kristi Noem and Sen. John Thune told reporters this week that they continue to watch and listen for news on when an official conference committee might begin work on merging the House and Senate versions of legislation passed earlier this summer.

"We can also begin to work on these differences before a conference committee is convened," Noem said, noting that the chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees had begun discussions. "They're pre-conferencing, which is great. But I would love to see the formal conference begin because it gets us that much closer to putting a bill on the president's desk."

Members of the conference committee have not been named, and Thune said he hopes that happens before the annual August recess begins next week.

"We haven't been informed in the Senate who those people would be," said Thune, noting that leaders from both parties would appoint the committee members. "They will be senior people on committees, most likely people who supported the legislation when it passed. The chairmen and ranking members from each of the authorizing committees and a handful of other Republicans and Democrats."

Thune voted against the bill in the Senate while Noem supported the House version. Each had separate conference calls with reporters this week. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., voted for the Senate bill.

The main difference between the two bills -- and a great source of ongoing controversy -- is the lack of a so-called nutrition title in the House bill. That piece of the bill, part of farm legislation for decades, provides for school lunches, food stamps, food banks and other programs.

Noem wants the House to pass a nutrition bill on its own and send that into the farm bill conference committee. Thune seems indifferent.

"They can pass a standalone bill and then marry that up with the other parts of the bill, or we can just take what we passed in the Senate and go to conference," Thune said.

The current bill, a one-year extension of the previous five-year farm bill, expires at the end of September. With the August recess standing between now and that date, both Thune and Noem are anxious to see any signs of progress.

"I want the process to move along sooner rather than later before we get to the end of September," Noem said.

Thune has said his no vote on the Senate version of the bill was motivated by insufficient reforms to the nutrition title and by a new program included in the legislation that he said overwhelmingly benefits rice and peanut producers at a cost of $3 billion.

Still, he has pledged to improve the legislation as much as he can.

"We've come so far, and it's been such a long birthing process, let's hope we're finally coming to the end of the road," Thune said.